Visceral Coding


Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

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